#LongPlayLove: Celebrating Raekwon’s ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…’

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#LongPlayLove: Celebrating Raekwon’s ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…’
By Justin Chadwick

Happy Anniversary to Raekwon’s debut album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, originally released August 1, 1995.

To be sure, the ascendance of the mighty Wu-Tang Clan was impressively swift following the Staten Island crew’s landmark debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in the fall of 1993. As their devoted fan base rapidly expanded, demand for new Wu-Tang material exploded. The group responded with ample supply in the form of the proliferation of stellar solo albums that emerged in the few years between Enter the Wu-Tang and 1997’s sophomore effort Wu-Tang Forever. Thankfully, due to RZA’s sonic perfectionism and the superior rhyming acumen of the respective Wu-Tang emcees, the quality of output was never compromised for the sake of quantity.

First up to bat was Method Man, whose enthrallingly rough, rugged and raw 1994 debut LP Tical reinforced that the Wu-Tang Clan’s underground spirit was still alive and well, despite the massive critical and commercial acclaim they had garnered in the year prior. Next was Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, which surfaced four and a half months after Tical and earned ODB a whole new legion of admirers charmed by his defiantly unorthodox flow and original sound. But it was the third solo offering from the man affectionately known as “The Chef” that elevated the Wu’s creative bar to thrilling new heights.

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A symphony for the ears and a marathon for the mind, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… shines the spotlight squarely upon Raekwon and partner-in-rhyme Ghostface Killah’s impassioned, intricately-woven street soliloquies, propelled by RZA’s unparalleled studio wizardry. Thematically centered around Rae and Ghost’s visceral, autobiographical narratives about growing up in the Staten Island projects of Park Hill and Stapleton, respectively, juxtaposed with fictional organized crime and drug caper tales, Cuban Linx is an ambitiously conceived, methodically executed concept album.

RZA explains that “The theme of the album is two guys that had enough of the negative life and was ready to move on, but had one more sting to pull off. They’re tired of doing what they doing, but they’re trying to make this last quarter million. That’s a lot of money in the streets. We gonna retire and see our grandbabies and get our lives together.” The album intro “Striving for Perfection” frames the rest of the album accordingly, as Rae and Ghost plan their next caper and also plot their way out of the drug game, once and for all. Their candid verbal exchange reinforces the duality of the album’s premise, as just beneath the surface of the unapologetic portraits of crime’s dark side runs an underlying sense of regret and a yearning to find the way out of the game toward a more normal, less volatile lifestyle.

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Also known in some circles as “The Purple Tape” since the original cassette was released in purple-tinted plastic—a nod to the practice embraced by some drug dealers of marking their product to differentiate it from others—Raekwon has accurately described the album as “a gangster epic.” Indeed, with its cohesive flow from song-to-song and grand orchestral sound, the album unfolds like a frenetically-cadenced, suspense-filled film vividly translated to wax. RZA’s vision for the project was cinematic by design, as supported by the abundance of sinister strings, haunting piano loops, various vocal sample snippets from various films – the majority lifted from the 1989 John Woo film The Killer – and spoken dialogue interludes between tracks.

While Raekwon, the self-proclaimed “Storytelling Rap Magellan,” has top billing on the album, Cuban Linx is unequivocally a Wu-Tang family affair through-and-through. RZA’s influence is unmistakably palpable throughout the dome-penetrating song suite, and the quid pro quo rhymeplay between Rae and Ghost reinforces the fraternal and creative bond the two emcees possess. Raekwon recalls that “We wanted people to see me and think of Ghost, or see Ghost and think of me. Ghost and me, especially at the time, had this identical-twin effect on each other. We would joke about the same things and laugh at the same shit. We were into the same clothes and shit. We were like the EPMD of the crew [laughs].” Wu-Tang members Cappadonna, GZA, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, Method Man, and U-God all feature on various tracks, along with Nas, whose characteristically commanding verse on the hypnotic head-nodder “Verbal Intercourse” represents the first-ever vocal contribution to a Wu-affiliated album by a non-Wu emcee.

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While highlights are abundant across the LP’s eighteen tracks, a handful of songs stand out. “Criminology” is an adrenaline-soaked banger that glides across a smooth Black Ivory sample, beginning with a brief sample from Scarface and a non sequitur reference to Julio Iglesias, as it segues into Ghost and Rae exchanging hard-hitting verses that encapsulate the drug-fueled gangster lifestyle. The chilled-out beats of “Incarcerated Scarfaces” elevate Raekwon’s flow to the forefront, allowing him to “shine like marble, rhyme remarkable.”

The ominous soundscape RZA bestows upon the introspective “Rainy Dayz” creates an atmosphere of impending doom and gloom, as Rae and Ghost reflect upon the demands of hustling and their desire to seek out a more stable existence, while vocalist Blue Raspberry laments that she‘s lost her man to the street life and wonders how she’ll make it through the resulting rainy days.

Finally, “Guillotine (Swordz)” (featuring Inspectah Deck and GZA), “Ice Cream” (Method Man and Cappadonna), and “Wu-Gambinos” (Method Man, RZA and Masta Killa) form a superb trio of Wu-Tang posse cuts that prove just how seamlessly the respective emcees’ versatile rhyming styles complement one another and make for captivating drama.

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The Wu-Tang Clan is arguably the most prolific hip-hop group of all-time, and an integral component of the group’s untouchable track record is Raekwon’s masterpiece Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Beyond its role within Wu-Tang’s history, Cuban Linx blazed a seminal trail for subsequent  mid-90s Mafioso-tinged albums including Jay-Z’s debut Reasonable Doubt, Nas’ It Was Written, The Firm’s The Album, Mobb Deep’s Hell on Earth, and the Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous Life After Death. While the obligatory singles were released from Cuban Linx, the album’s power extends well beyond any one track and resides within its remarkable breadth and scale of vision, exemplifying the creative vitality that hip-hop sustained into the post-golden age mid-90s. You’ll be hard-pressed to find many hip-hop albums that are as universally lauded and critically acclaimed as Cuban Linx, and for good reason. An all-around brilliant headrush of an album that epitomizes the essence and depth of hip-hop, sonically and lyrically, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’s indelible legacy and listenability will endure for generations to come.

My Favorite Song: “Rainy Dayz”

Bonus Videos:

“Incarcerated Scarfaces”

“Glaciers of Ice”

“Ice Cream”

“Criminology”

“Heaven & Hell”

BUY Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx via Amazon | iTunes | Turntable Lab

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BUY ‘Only Build 4 Cuban Linx…’

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